Immersed in Wonder

“I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” 

– Mark 1:8

Not long ago I saw a picture of a Pandemic baptism.  The mother was holding up her baby while the pastor stood about eight feet away next to the font and aimed a squirt gun at the baby.  So, ten points for creativity during the pandemic!  

I wonder what the writer or writers of the Didache would have thought of that.  The Didache is a small book of instruction for the Christian faithful written around the year 100.  It was called the Didache, meaning The Twelve, because it was assumed that the teachings in it were handed down by the twelve apostles.  Here’s what the it says about baptism:  “And concerning baptism,  baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,  in living water (running water). But if you do not have living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot in cold, in warm. But if you have not either, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit.”  It seems clear that the Didache calls us to adapt as circumstances dictate, so maybe in these circumstances where we are required to maintain physical distance to help stop the Corona virus, the writer of the Didache would be just fine with a water pistol baptism as long as it’s done in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Some people want to insist that the only valid baptism is by immersion.  They point out that our verb to baptize comes from the Greek word baptidzo, which means “to immerse.”  They’re right about that–  baptidzo does mean “to immerse.”  But it’s also the word that’s used to describe sprinkling dressing on your salad.  And as the Didache makes clear, three splashes of water on the head in the name of the triune God is adequate if that’s what you’re equipped to do or if that’s what circumstances dictate.  It’s not the amount of water that matters, it’s the power of the Word of God in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

But let’s stick with the idea of immersing for a moment.  In Matthew 28:19 Jesus says, “Go make disciples of all peoples, baptizing them—immersing them—in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  If we simply reduce that to a formula for a baptismal ritual, I think we are missing the entire point of what he was calling us to do.  

Jesus is calling us to make disciples and be disciples who are immersed in the life and love, the eternal relationship, of the triune God.  Jesus is calling us to dive deep into that relationship with the Trinity and to draw others in with us.  At the same time, Jesus is calling us to enter into a deeper relationship with humanity, with all peoples.  All nations.  Panta ta ethne it says in the Greek.  All the ethnicities.

When Jesus was baptized by John at the Jordan, it was both an incarnational and a trinitarian moment.  Jesus, fully human and fully divine enters into the water, immerses himself into the physical reality of this world, accompanied by the Holy Spirit and with the Father’s voice of affirmation ringing in his heart.  He immerses himself into all the joys and beauty and intricate complexity of the earth and at the same time into all the suspicion, harshness, competition and misunderstanding.  He immerses himself into water, the element that is essential to sustain us and can also kill us, the element that can enrich us with a bountiful harvest or destroy us with chaotic storms.  He immerses himself in life as we live it. 

He rises from the water to begin his ministry of proclaiming the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven, to teach us in the middle of our chaotic lives about God’s boundless grace and endless love, and to show us that there is a pathway through the chaos.  And he calls us to follow, to enter the mystery with him, and bring others along with us.

Baptism reminds us that we are enlisted in a cosmic drama and that the stakes are high.

These are the questions we ask before we profess our faith in the rite of baptism:

Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?

Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?

Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?

They sound archaic and mythic, these questions, but they are worth serious thought.  They are a clue that in our baptism we are entering into mysteries that are deeper and older than what most of the world is used to observing or thinking about.  These questions remind us that there are forces at work behind the scenes, that evil is sinister and insidious and seductive and deceptive.

But this is where we have to be very cautious.  We find stories with these “behind the scenes” elements attractive, and if we’re not careful we can easily become paranoid and fall prey to conspiracy theories.  We can find ourselves manipulated and dragged down dangerous rabbit holes through lies, rumors, half-truths and misdirection.  We can get good and evil confused with each other.  Martin Luther noted this in the Heidelberg Disputation when he wrote, “A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil.  A theologian of the cross call the thing what it actually is.”

We saw how out of hand this can get this week when a mob, misled and spurred on by outrageous claims made by Q-Anon and baseless assertions of voter fraud made by the president and others, attacked the capitol building in an attempt to disrupt the certification of the Electoral College ballots.  I’m sure many, maybe most of them believed their cause was right and just, that they were standing against evil.  But they had been misled.  Manipulated.  And so they became tools in an act of desecration.

One of the gifts of the Holy Spirit that St. Paul listed in 1 Corinthians 12:10 is the discernment of spirits.  Let me ask you—what spirit did you see at work in that riot?  I, for one, did not see any spirit of righteousness in a Confederate flag, a blatant symbol of racism being paraded through the rotunda. I did not discern anything holy in a face-painted, shirtless man with horns on his head defiling the sacred chambers of deliberation where our laws are made.

Baptism means we renounce calls to violence.  Baptism means we renounce white supremacy and racism.  Baptism means we renounce rumor and falsehood.  It means we speak truth and name a thing what it is. 

Baptism means our hearts break when we see sacred spaces profaned, when we see our common halls of deliberation desecrated by thoughtless frenzy and anger.  

Baptism means we work to restore what has been damaged, especially relationships. 

To be baptized also means, though, that we swim in a sea of grace.  It means that when we lose our sense of self or become too full of ourselves, we have a place to come home to, a loving Abba who reminds us of who we really are, a God who helps us find our true self hidden in Christ.

“The grace of God,” wrote Buechner, “means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.”

Baptism gives us identity.  It anoints us as children of God and at the same time reminds us that we are siblings in our humanity.  It reminds us that we have a responsibility to God, to the world and to each other.  Baptism reminds us that our lives are in each other’s hands. 

Baptism is not a one-time event.  It is a way of life.  Baptism is not fire insurance.  We don’t baptize babies so that if, God forbid, something awful should happen they won’t go to hell.  We baptize them so that they can be immersed from the very beginning in a life where they are always seeing and experiencing the presence of God, ideally within the family of faith—with the community of all those sisters and brothers who have also been given what St. Paul calls “a spirit of adoption.”  We baptize adults because it is never too late to begin that new life as God’s child, never too late to become a new creation, never too late to receive that “spirit of adoption,” never too late to be embraced by and enfolded into the family of faith.

In baptism we live in a covenant with God and with the family of faith.  The water and the Word seal our vow to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.

Baptism means I try to live peaceably with all, so far as it depends on me.  It means that I try to bring to the world love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. 

Because we are baptized, we try to love our neighbors as ourselves, and that’s not always easy because sometimes our neighbors are prickly and abrasive and unlovable.  Still, we try to love them.  We try to understand why they’re prickly and abrasive and unlovable.  We pray for them and ask God to heal whatever pain makes them put on such harsh armor against the world or we ask God to break through whatever illusion they’re living under. 

“If we are to love our neighbors,” wrote Frederick Buechner, “before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in.” 

To be baptized is to see the world with new eyes.  To be baptized is to see that it is a world of wonder moving through a cosmos full of wonder.  To be baptized is to marvel at the astonishing work of God conducting the dance of stars, planets and gravitational waves, to see God as the inscrutable force of intent in quantum mechanics.  To be baptized is to see life in all its fullness, the good and the bad, to immerse yourself in it as Christ did, and to love it.

Baptism means you understand that life is a gift, and you have reached out to accept it.  In Jesus’ name.

Saint Don of Long Beach

Matthew 5:1-12

My sense of time is out of sync.  With Covid messing up all our internal clocks and scrambling our routines, Summer didn’t so much fade into Fall as crash land into it.  Halloween just didn’t feel like the big seasonal transition point that it has been in past years, and after seeing everyone in masks for nine months it lost a bit of its punch.  Still, this is where we are in the calendar, so it’s probably best for all our psyches if we acknowledge the season and move forward.

Since Halloween and Reformation Day happen at the same time—you do remember that Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg University Chapel on All Hallows Eve in 1517, right?—I always used to suggest to my confirmation students that they should dress for Halloween as great characters from the Reformation.  You know, Martin or Katie Luther, Phillip Melancthon, Duke Frederick the Wise, Father Staupitz, Cardinal Cajetan, Pope Leo X….  For some reason none of the kids ever did it.  

Did you dress up for Halloween?  Did you put on a costume or a disguise?  I think we should stretch the All Hallows fun for a while.  I was thinking a kind of masquerade might be fun.  It might even help to take some of the anxiety out of election day.  

I think we should all pretend to be Saints.  Wouldn’t that be a great way to celebrate All Saints Day?   And the best part is, you don’t have to wear a costume or make yourself look different in any way.  You would need to wear a mask if you go out in public.  Because that’s what a saint would do. To protect others.  But other than that, you could just look like you.  Because if you’re a disciple of Jesus—if you’re someone who is really trying hard to listen closely to Jesus and live the way he calls us to live—you are a saint.

Somewhere along the way in the last two thousand years we got the idea that saints have to be dead—that saints are particularly holy persons who have performed miracles both before and after death.  Somewhere we got the idea that to be a saint you have to be people put through a rigorous certification process by the Roman church. 

Well, those people definitely are saints.  They deserve our respect, and any number of them can serve as good examples of how to live a saintly life.  But when St. Paul addressed his letters to “all the saints” in Phillipi or Corinth or Rome he wasn’t talking about people who had been canonized by an official process that didn’t yet exist.  And he certainly wasn’t talking to people who were dead.  The word he used, the word we translate as “saints” was hagiois.  It means those who are consecrated or dedicated to following Jesus and serving the community of the faithful.  It was Paul’s way of referring to all those who had been baptized.

So, if you’ve been baptized—consecrated to Christ—you are a saint.

So see!  No costume! 

Except there kind of is.  A costume.  Of sorts.

It’s a very subtle disguise we wear, we saints.  So subtle that most never see it.

Our costume, our masquerade, is that we actually live in a different world, a different reality, than everyone else, a world that is in, with, and under, and around, and through, and over the world everyone else is living in.  We who are saints are called to live in the kingdom of heaven.

The kingdom of heaven is not some future reality that we may accomplish someday.  Well, it is that, but it’s also a present reality that we can be living into right now. 

The kingdom of heaven is not some abstract life after life.  It is not some mythical place with pearly gates and golden slippers and halos and harps.  It’s not fluffy clouds and angels.

The kingdom of heaven occurs when people take the words of Jesus to heart and live into them.  Here.  Now.  Always.

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus describes the contrast between heaven and earth as something that isn’t as binary as spiritual versus physical or now versus later.   Heaven is, quite simply, where God’s will is done.  Heaven is where God rules rather than where “the kings of the earth” hold sway. Heaven is the place God is constructing and inviting us to enter. Now.  Not in some indefinite future.  Not after death.  Now.

Heaven is both present and future, since God is both present and future.  God’s kingdom is not yet fully established “on earth as it is in heaven,” but we are invited to live into it now and to help make it more fully a reality.  The thing is, though, even though we are saints we need instructions on how to do that.  Fortunately, Jesus gives us those instructions.  

The Sermon on the Mount is, as Amy-Jill Levine describes it, “the beginner’s guide to the kingdom of heaven,”[1] and the Beatitudes which we see in today’s gospel lesson (Matthew 5:1-12) are the first lesson in that guide.  This is the lesson where the saints learn how to see, because living in this other reality, the kingdom of heaven that’s layered over the world of everybody else, requires a special kind of vision.  

The first thing we need to learn to see is who are the blessed ones.  We need to learn to see this because common wisdom tells us that the blessed ones in this world are the rich, the powerful, the well-connected—the people who know where are all the strings are and how to pull them.  The blessed ones, according to common wisdom, are the healthy, the well-fed, the well-housed, the well thought-of, and the well-off –those for whom everything is going pretty darn well.  

Jesus would quibble.  Those folk may or may not be blessed.  Certainly they are fortunate.  But blessed, as Jesus is using it here, is different.  Blessed means God sees them.  Blessed means God takes note of them.  Blessed means God is on their side and in their corner.  

So who are the blessed?  

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” says Jesus, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  I’ve always struggled with understanding exactly who “the poor in spirit” are, with what exactly that phrase really means.  One understanding has said that the poor in spirit are those who struggle with or are weak in their faith.  Maybe, but that has never felt quite right to me.  Another definition says the poor in spirit are simply those who are not being conceited or prideful.  That might be closer, but it’s not quite there.

Amy-Jill Levine defines the poor in spirit as “those who recognize that they are both the beneficiaries of the help of others and part of a system in which they are to pay it forward and help those whom they can.  Poor in spirit are those who do not sit around saying ‘Look at what I’ve accomplished,’ or worse, feel resentful because they have not received what they consider sufficient honor.  They know they did the right thing; they know God knows, and that’s sufficient recognition indeed.”[2]

The poor in spirit see their privilege.  They are aware of their interdependence.  They see the gap between what they have and what others do not have and they have a vision of leveling the field.  The poor in spirit feel empathy for those who do not have what they have and that spurs them to generosity. They are blessed because they have that insight, that vision of the kin-dom, an understanding of their common humanity with others. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” 

Let’s back up for a moment to our definition of blessed.  The Greek word here is makarioi. It literally means the blessed ones but in most of our translations it becomes blessed are.  But it’s still a tricky word.  Makarios, the root word, can mean happy, fortunate, free from care, favored.  It can also mean a gift bestowed.   None of those definitions seem to go with “those who mourn.”

As I noted a moment ago, Jesus is using the term blessed a little differently.  Remember, this is lesson one in entering into the kingdom of heaven.  This is learning to see how God is present and at work in our lives, even in the excruciatingly painful moments.  Even when we mourn. 

Death is painful.  Death is real.  And the Bible takes death seriously.  The scriptures do not diminish mourning with platitudes.  Jesus weeps for Lazarus.  The disciples mourn for Jesus.

So where is the blessing for those who mourn?

“In part those who mourn are blessed because not everyone can mourn.  To mourn is to say, ‘I loved this person, and I desperately miss this person’—a heart that knows how to grieve is a heart that know how to love,” writes Amy-Jill Levine.[3]

Being able to mourn also means taking time to mourn.  Our culture is so uncomfortable with loss and grief that we tend to want to rush through it and diminish it.  We say the most inane things to each other instead of acknowledging the loss and listening with open hearts and open arms or simply sitting in silence.

Blessed are those who mourn because they take time to mourn.  Blessed are those who mourn because God stands with the brokenhearted. 

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”  Meek does not mean insignificant.  It does not mean being a doormat.  The Greek word that’s used here is praus. It’s the same word that’s used to describe a wild animal that’s been tamed.  A tame lion is still a lion.  It might be more helpful to think in terms of gentle.  Blessed are the gentle.  Blessed are the nonviolent.  Blessed are those with great authority who do not lord it over others.  Blessed are those who model servant leadership rather than despotism.  Blessed are those who do not use their power for exploitation.  They shall inherit the earth.

To inherit the earth is not a windfall.  It is a responsibility.  Creation is handed into your care and stewardship.  It is something to be treasured and tended and cared for.  It is an inheritance to be passed along to bless future generations.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”  In the Gospel of Matthew, righteousness is one of the central themes of Jesus’ ministry.  Righteousness is also one of the hallmarks of the kingdom of heaven.  In Greek, the word is dikaiosyne. It’s a compound word combining dike, justice, and syne, together.  It means to be just together or to create justice together.   Righteousness affects the whole community.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Blessed are those who want to live in a just and fair world where laws and economics and opportunities are applied evenly and fairly to everyone regardless of their station or standing in life.  

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  They will be filled because their hunger and thirst will move them to address the inequities and inequalities of the world one by one as they encounter them.  Their lives will always have purpose and they will know that they are doing good as the prophet Micah described it: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.

And so the list goes on—the beginner’s guide for entering the kingdom of heaven.  We keep learning– learning to see life through the blessed eyes of the merciful and the pure of heart, learning to be peacemakers.  Learning to endure persecution if we must.  Learning to live in this other reality that is in, with, and under the day-to-day world.  Learning to live into the kingdom of heaven.  Learning to be saints.

And yes, this is All Saints Day, the day we pause to remember the saints who have gone before us.  Saints like St. Teresa of Avila and St. Francis of Assisi.  But also we remember our local, everyday saints.  Saints like St. Mike and St. Marion and St. Don of Long Beach.  This is the day we stop to remember how they were blessed, and how they blessed us.

This is a day to remember that, now and always, we are blessed.


[1] Amy-Jill Levine, The Sermon on the Mount: A Beginner’s Guide to the Kingdom of Heaven; Abingdon, 2020; xiii

[2] Ibid, 8

[3] Ibid;12